Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan?

OK. This is odd. My new go-to site on Iraq, IraqSlogger.com, is reporting conflicting “reports of a Turkish incursion into Iraqi Kurdistan/Northern Iraq”:http://www.iraqslogger.com/index.php/post/3103 in hot pursuit of PKK fighters.
AP has been reporting that “thousands” of Turkish troops have crossed the border, but various officials are denying it.

Several thousand Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq early Wednesday to chase Kurdish guerrillas who operate from bases there, two “senior security officials” told the AP.

“It is not a major offensive and the number of troops is not in the tens of thousands,” one of the officials, based in southeast Turkey, told The Associated Press by telephone. The officials did not say where the Turkish force was operating in northern Iraq, nor did he say how long they would be there.

The AP has scaled back its estimate, and now says “hundreds” of troops.
DEBKA (grain of salt required) says “50,000 Turkish troops have invaded.”:http://debka.com/headline.php?hid=4284 The Kurds, obviously, are not pleased.

Massoud Barzani, had sent a personal emissary, Safin Dizai, to Ankara with an urgent warning. Turkish tanks would not be allowed to cross into northern Iraq, he said. The Kurdish peshmerga would repel them. “The people of Kurdistan,” said the messenger, “would not stand by as spectators if Turkish tanks and panzers entered Kirkuk.”

Is this true? I can’t tell yet, but I’ve got some emails and calls out to friends in Kurdistan and I’m waiting to hear. Will let you know if I can find out more.
In the meantime, some thoughts on this: If this report is true — a big “if” at this point — it’s a marked escalation in the region, obviously. As with most things in the Middle East, there are many, many threads and few things are so clear-cut as many in the West would imagine them to be. (“If A happens, then B must result.”)
But, with that caveat, if the Turks really have crossed with hundreds of troops or more, I believe it’s a response to the Kurds’ threats of pulling out of Iraq because of the oil law, rather than any pretense of chasing the PKK. It’s also likely tied up somehow with the current dispute between the military and ErdoÄŸan’s soft-Islamist government in Ankara.
But could the US have approved this? If so, the only reason might be to persuade the Kurds to buckle under to Iraq’s new oil law. However, If the US agreed to this, they’re playing with fire. Like the Iranians next door, who think they can carefully stoke the civil war as a means of bogging down the US, the Americans likely believe they can keep the Turks in check and the Kurds from attacking Turkish forces. But I know the peshmerga, and they’re not going to take a few hundred Turkish soldiers in a “security zone” lightly. It will get ugly and out of control quickly.
* If the US didn’t agree to this, it’s a nightmare scenario. Who to ally with? Turkey as a NATO ally fighting terrorism? The Kurds, who are the only real success story in the Iraqi narrative? If the US takes no side and instead diverts forces to the north to stand between the two sides, where will these troops come from? Baghdad? Anbar? What happens when the US troops leave those areas?
* I expect another Kurdish insurgency in Turkey is in the works. We all know how well that worked out last time.
* I don’t think the Turkish government will collapse or a military coup will result. I think instead, the Turkish population will rally around whatever action the Turks take and the government led by ErdoÄŸan will follow the lead and lend its full-throated support.
*UPDATE June 7, 11:03:44 AM +0200 GMT:* Spencer at TPMmuckracker doesn’t buy it, and blames DEBKAfile, which is fair enough. But AP is still sticking to its, er, guns and now characterizes the operation as “hundreds” of Turkish troops in “raids.” Curiouser and curiouser.
So many implications. And so little information.
Also, donations are working again, and covering this place ain’t cheap. Fixers, rented cars, hotel rooms, etc. all cost money and freelancing for newspapers only covers part of it. If you’d like me to keep blogging the developments in Lebanon’s latest crisis, please consider dropping some coin in the donate link below and to the right. Thanks.

U.S. clashes with PKK/Kadek in north?

Eyebrows should be raised, but the Turkish foreign minister Abdullah Gul is claiming that American forces have clashed with PKK/KADEK forces in northern Iraq. The BBC reports that U.S. forces exchanged fire with “unknown forces” in the area.

A spokesman for the US 101st Airborne Division, based in Mosul, said the incident took place near Dahuk, about 10 miles (15 kilometers) from the Turkey-Iraq border.
One member of the Iraqi border patrol was killed, he said.
The “unknown forces” were disbursed with the assistance of Apache attack helicopters and a quick reaction force team, he added.

“It is true that clashes took place yesterday,” Gul has said. “Not only U.S. forces but also Kurdish ‘peshmerga’ fighters were involved in engaging the PKK. Some U.S. helicopters were also deployed.”
[UPDATE 1:40 PM EST: Agence France Press is reporting ambiguity in the parties involved, just as BBC did earlier, saying Iraqi border guards came under attack by "unknown forces." The "Kurdistan Democratic Party":http://www.kdp.pp.se/ office in Washington has no comment.]
The “PKK/KADEK”:http://www.back-to-iraq.com/archives/000119.php#000119 fought a brutal war with Turkey from 1984-1998, in which upwards of 30,000 civilians in southeast Turkey were killed and entire villages destroyed. In an effort to persuade Turkey to contribute 10,000 troops to Iraq, Washington promised to help crackdown on the Kurdish group, which ended its 5-year cease fire against Turkey in September.
At the time, Qubad Jalal Talabani, the deputy representative for the “Patriotic Union of Kurdistan”:http://www.puk.org in Washington — which has had sometimes warmer, sometimes cooler relations with the PKK — told me via email:

There is much talk about US-Turkey action towards the PKK, but in reality, the US are already fighting a war on a few fronts (Al-Qaeda, Ansar, Saddam loyalists etc). The last thing would want to do is open another front.
Secondly, the US and the Kurds (Iraqi), are on a very new and different playing field, in terms of the respect that each shows the other. The US would never do such actions with first consulting, and second receiving permission, from us.
Our advice to the US and to Turkey has always been, the PKK are tired, regardless of what some idiots from within them think, the majority of them are ready to lay down their arms and go back to their homes. If the US can pressure Turkey into providing them with an amnesty (a real one!) then this problem will be resolved.

Turkey apparently withdrew its offer of troops Nov. 7 and said, “The government has decided not to implement the (parliamentary) motion to send troops to Iraq,” an unnamed government official was quoted as saying. The next day, Gul warned the U.S. “not to show bias towards Iraqi Kurds.” Tellingly, Gul also

told NTV that the US had reaffirmed its determination to eliminate the PKK threat, but insisted that that Ankara reserved the right of intervention in case of a “threat or attack” coming out of its neighbour’s territory.

The next day, Sunday, we see the U.S. [possibly] attacking PKK/KADEK forces. Gul’s comments can only be seen as a maneuver to get the U.S. to act, [and thus should be looked at skeptically.]
But why? Running through all this is the American desire to have some kind of help — any kind — to help with increasingly successful insurgents in Iraq. Stratfor says a Turkish force is still not out of the question, especially if Washington fields a Shia anti-guerilla force with the help of Iran — Turkey’s old nemesis in Iraq. Is it so out of the question that the action in the north, which runs the risk of alienating a substantial portion of the Kurdish population in Iraq, which is anti-Turk, is a show of good faith by the U.S. in an effort to get Turkey’s civilian government to change its mind? (By all accounts, the Turkish military, unlike Ankara’s civilian government, sees sending troops as a chance to deal with the “Kurdish Problem” once and for all and establish control over northern Iraq.) If, in the future, fighting between PKK/KADEK and U.S. forces is seen, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Turkish troops close behind.

Is Syria Next?

There’s been a lot of speculation that Iraq was just the first in a line of nettlesome problems in the Middle East that neo-cons wanted to “solve.” Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in an interview almost a year ago that Iran should be the next target. However, it seems Washington has decided to step up its campaign against Syria.
I44038-2003Oct17L.jpg
U.S.-led coalition troops treat wounded soldiers after an attack on a Humvee on the main road about 50 miles south of Baghdad. The extent of the soldiers’ wounds was unclear. (Greg Baker — AP) Click to enlarge
Last weekend, “to caution Israel’s enemies at a time of heightened tensions in the region and concern over Iran’s alleged ambitions,” Washington revealed that Israel now has land-, air- and submarine-based nuclear launch capability. This came just days after Turkish lawmakers voted to send up to 10,000 troops to Iraq. With the Turks now a dues-paying member of the “Coalition of Willing,” this means Syria is effectively surrounded. Remember that the major fighting in Iraq ended with Syrian and American forces skirmishing on the border, and now Damascus is pressed on the north and south by the formerly neutral Turkey and its old enemy Israel. The pressure is on Syrian President Bashar al-Asad to cease support for groups such as Hizballah and other groups operating out of Damascus. Asad is facing a dangerous gamble: Is the United States bluffing in its deployment of its and its allies’ forces around Syria in an attempt to force behavior change? Will a regime change follow if Syria’s behavior doesn’t alter?
Adding further to pressure is the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 (HR 1828). It passed the House this week, and particular note should be paid to Section 4 — Statement of Principles:

  1. Syria will be held responsible for attacks committed by Hizballah and other terrorist groups with offices, training camps, or other facilities in Syria, or bases in areas of Lebanon occupied by Syria;
  2. the United States shall impede Syria’s ability to support acts of international terrorism and efforts to develop or acquire weapons of mass destruction;
  3. the Secretary of State will continue to list Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism until Syria ends its support for terrorism, including its support of Hizballah and other terrorist groups in Lebanon and its hosting of terrorist groups in Damascus, and comes into full compliance with United States law relating to terrorism and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373 (September 28, 2001);
  4. efforts against Hizballah will be expanded given the recognition that Hizballah is equally or more capable than al Qa’ida;
  5. the full restoration of Lebanon’s sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity is in the national security interest of the United States;
  6. Syria is in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 520 (September 17, 1982) through its continued occupation of Lebanese territory and its encroachment upon Lebanon’s political independence;
  7. Syria’s obligation to withdraw from Lebanon is not conditioned upon progress in the Israeli-Syrian or Israeli-Lebanese peace process but derives from Syria’s obligation under Security Council Resolution 520;
  8. Syria’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs threaten the security of the Middle East and the national security interests of the United States;
  9. Syria will be held accountable for any harm to Coalition armed forces or to any United States citizen in Iraq due to its facilitation of terrorist activities and its shipments of military supplies to Iraq; and
  10. the United States will not provide any assistance to Syria and will oppose multilateral assistance for Syria until Syria ends all support for terrorism, withdraws its armed forces from Lebanon, and halts the development and deployment of weapons of mass destruction and medium- and long-range surface-to-surface ballistic missiles.

Note that many of these principles are almost identical to those expressed against Iraq, particularly the violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, the weapons of mass destruction and its ties to terrorism — in this case Hizballah, which has been promoted to Al Qa’ida rank in evil. Even the “axis of evil” rhetoric has been heated up, as this statement from the office of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, illustrates:

Syria is a government at war with the values of the civilized world and a violent threat to free nations and free men everywhere. We’ll send a clear message to President Asad and his fellow travelers along the axis of evil: The United States will not tolerate terrorism, its perpetrators, or its sponsors. And our warnings are not to be ignored. (Emphasis added — Ed.)

Stratfor.com notes that the capture of Baghdad shocked the Arab world, and the United States seized the psychological initiative with the city’s fall. The United States went from being perceived as a hated but impotent power to a hated but feared one. Since the fall of Baghdad, however, the perception that the United States is bogged down by guerillas has taken hold and much of the initiative has been lost. The passage of HR 1828 and the coalescing of a regional coalition against Syria is required if the United States’ is to regain its footing and momentum. If pressure by Washington works, then Syria will reduce support to terror groups targeting Israel and halt the flow of fighters into Iraq. If it doesn’t, the United States will need to deal with Syria by force.
Related link: Why Iraq?

Update to Flag Flap

A knowledgeable friend who was in Kirkuk a few weeks ago wrote in to tell me that the Kurds — and other political parties such as the Turkoman Front — had been flying their flags since at least the beginning of August. Three days ago, when the Coalition Provisional Authority instructed the flags be taken down, Kurds pelted U.S. soldiers with stones. The CPA soon reversed itself, the reason for the previous entry.
As my friend wrote: “When I was there [in early August], the city was FILLED with Kurdish flags. It is truly unbelievable, and quite beautiful. Every single building had a Kurdistan flag flying. Many walls had Kurdish flags painted on them. Even the lightposts had Kurdish flags painted on them.”
The flagrant flag flying was news to me. I had heard from friends in the area that the Iraqi flag (minus Saddam’s post-1991 Arabic additions) had been flying since the early summer or so. In fact, when I was there in April on the day of Kirkuk’s liberation, there were many old-style Iraqi flags being waved about — in addition to the political parties’ flags. When did the Kurds and others begin putting up their own flags? I don’t know.
Anyway, the decision to let the Kurds wave their banner high in Kirkuk seems to be a reverting to the status quo, although one that I still think is decidedly shaky. Regardless of the validity of the Kurds’ claims on Kirkuk (and I think they’re pretty damn valid), flaunting the Kurdish nature of the city in the face of Turkey and its Turkoman brethren is asking for trouble.
Anyway, this flag lag reveals a source of major frustration for me. My sources communicate too slowly to allow for timeliness. Trying to parse Kurdish and Arabic English-language media over the net is a bit of a fool’s game. In short, there’s no good way to cover Iraq from New York, and I have no way to get to Iraq any time soon.

Ethnic violence in Kirkuk

Three Turkomen were shot dead in ethnic violence in Kirkuk on Saturday, ending months of relative calm in the Kurdish region of Iraq. It’s unclear exactly what’s happening, but that seems to have been the cap on two days of violence in Kirkuk and Tuz Kharmato to the south, with at least 10 people being killed, some of them at the hands of American troops. The Associated Press reports that in addition to police shootings, artillery or mortar fire “rocked” the city on Saturday.
While a single weekend does not an internecine conflict make, the fallout has reached Ankara, where a “mob” of about 100 Turks attacked the office of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan there. KurdishMedia.com reports that about 23 Turkish police officers and a number of protesters were injured in the melee.
“Kirkuk is Turkish and it will remain Turkish,” shouted the protesters. “Damn Talabani, damn the peshmerga.” (Jalal Talabani is the Secretary-General of the PUK.)
In Kirkuk, the Turkmen representative to the interim Iraqi Governing Council called for the Kirkuk police to be disarmed.
All this is happening as the Middle East Newsline reports that Turkey will contribute 10,000 troops to patrol the Sunni Triangle extending west and north of Baghdad. They will remain under Turkish command and separate from the two international divisions rumored to be en route to Iraq.
This is most alarming. I wrote, during the war, that I felt the Turkomen were crying wolf about the threat to their security in a bid to play Turkey and the United States off one another so as to reign in the Kurds when it came time to establish a government in Kirkuk.

[Salim Otrakchi, a Turkoman spokesman] said the Turkomen were especially worried about Kirkuk because the PUK had promised it would not go into the city with its forces and it did anyway.
At this point, it’s probably a good idea just to tell you that I don’t believe what anyone is telling me at face value. The Kurds, deep in their hearts, really do want an independent Kurdistan and this talk of federalism is the practical side of Kurdish nationalism. If they thought they could get away with it, they would bolt Iraq and never look back, I think. The Turkomen don’t really feel that threatened, but they see the Kurds with their new buddies, the Americans, and worry they’ll be left out of any settlement and development plans in the north. So, they’re trying to play the Turks off the Americans to keep the Kurds in check. And the Turks … Well, actually, I believe them when they say they’re worried about their security. They’re a truly paranoid bunch.

While this may be an isolated incident, as I mentioned, I could also be wrong in my original thoughts on the subject. I watched with dismay as in the days following the capture of Baghdad and Kirkuk as the Kurds drove Arabs from land they felt had been taken from them under Saddam Hussein’s Arabization program. Revenge was being taken and the U.S. wasn’t doing enough to stop it.
Well, now the U.S. has its hands full with the Sunni Triangle and the guerrilla fighters there. Most of Iraqi Kurdistan has had but a sprinkling of American troops with most of the security being provided by Kurdish forces. Perhaps long-simmering tensions are starting to boil over after a brutally hot summer.
I hope not. But — and I apologize for again referring back to myself — as I wrote on Jan. 12, 2003:

Instead of a nice, clean occupation that results in the first Arab democracy — and a network of Army bases from which to project power throughout the region — I predict the United States will have years of guerilla insurgency from nationalistic Iraqis (some of the fiercest nationalism in the Arab world), the dirty job of suppressing Kurdish and Shi’ite independence movements and Sunni power grabs, the problem of al Qai’da slipping across the borders (with the help of Iran and sympathetic Saudis) into the country to stike at American troops and meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs by Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Russia. And don’t forget the resentment in the region that will occur when the United States begins exploiting the Iraqi oil fields for its own purposes. No one will like that, least of all the Iraqis.

So far, it appears only the last prediction hasn’t come to pass. Let’s hope this latest incident isn’t the start of something far worse.

Concerning the Turkomen

ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Interviews with figures of authority (FOA) in this region follow a pretty standard pattern. You greet them, shake their hands and then you sit down. Then you explain what you’d like to talk about. What follows is a 15-20 minute statement by the FOA broken up by the translator who never works quite quickly enough for the statement-maker, so only about every other block of speech is fully translated.
After this statement, which is organized like a college term paper with points and sub-points and full of verbal subheadings like, “Concerning the Turkomen’s position in Kirkuk….”, then I can ask questions. Interruptions or questions are not tolerated in the opening statement (“let me finish, please,” the FOA says when I attempt to get in a question.)
This happens every time, and yesterday’s chat with Kanan Shakir Uzeyrag Ali, the head of the Turkomen Independent Movement, one of the three parties making up the Iraqi Turkomen Front, was no exception. The president of the Front, Sanan Ahmet Aga, was unavailable, despite my 11 a.m. appointment.
“Our God, Allah, can do things in seconds, but he chose to create the world in six days,” said Salim Otrakchi, a political advisor to Aga. “If you have to wait a few hours to see the president, you must be patient.”
Well, I got Ali instead, which was just as well, as he was the Turkomen representative at the Kirkuk meeting on Friday that also included U.S. Gen. Baker and representatives from the PUK and KDP. The topic was the governing of Kirkuk, which Ali said was a Turkomen city.
Sorting out the competing claims on Kirkuk and other cities in Iraq is difficult. There hasn’t been an official Iraqi census since 1957 and population numbers have been manipulated over the years to suit the Ba’athish regime’s purposes. Also, Kirkuk has been heavily Arabized, with Turkomen and Kurds expelled from the city and surrounding villages to make way for Arabs from the south. Because of such forced demographic changes and the age of the city, at the moment, no one can say — honestly — who has a greater historical claim on the city. How far back should the claims go? The only thing that is sure, concerning Kirkuk, is that its oil fields and refineries would be a plum to whichever ethnic group — Arabs, Kurds or Turkomen — that controlled it.
Throwing more gasoline on this oil fire is the threat of the Turks to invade if the Kurds do anything to alter the characteristics of the population of Kirkuk. That means if the Kurds allow the tens of thousands of families Arabized out of their homes since the 1920s — and the Anfal campaign of 1987-88 in particular — to return, Turkey will see that as the crossing of a red line and send in its approximately 15,000 troops massed on the border to the north.
None of this matters to Ali, who portrays the Turkomen as an oppressed minority in the Kurdish area of Iraq, who can depend on no one but their Turkish brothers to the north.
Ali said the Turkomen felt betrayed by the United States when the PUK peshmergas flowed into the city on Thursday, liberating it from Saddam with little bloodshed. Before order was more or less restored by a combined Kurdish and American presence, there was widespread looting. Nothing like the savagery in Mosul, mind you, which happened because the main peshmerga forces were kept out of that city and the U.S. military felt securing the oil fields was more important than filling the power vacuum left by the Iraqi V Corps’ vanishing act. There’s a growing sense of resentment among all ethnic parties toward the U.S. because of this failure to provide basic security in the wake of Saddam’s ouster.
But back to Kirkuk, Ali told me that Turkomen had been targeted for crimes and human rights violations.
“We have 200 documents that show Turkomen people were robbed,” he said. “The people who have suffered the most are the Turkomen. Any time there is some situation, the victim was Turkomen.”
I asked him how this compared to robbery reports by Kurds or Arabs or even Assyrians. He said he had no idea, as they went to their own people. How do you know there weren’t 500 robberies of Kurdish people or 1,000 assaults on Assyrians, I asked. Is the violence against the Turkomen targeted or are they just getting caught up in the general chaos? “This point is clear,” he added. “The Turkomen are not armed people. And the people stealing from them are armed people.”
This claim of Turkomen pacifism is, frankly, hard to believe. Practically every man in this country owns some kind of firearm. Most men in the ITF office where I interviewed Ali carried a sidearm or a Kalishnikov.
Ali said the meeting Thursday was productive in that Gen. Baker asked the Turkomen to take part in the security of the city, but he said the Turkomen, who have an aversion to guns, remember, would not be able to help until security was guaranteed by — surprise! — the Turks.
“Our people are sitting in their homes and they are having their families taken captive and their furniture taken,” he said. “How can he be a soldier? We are ready to help, but other military people are coming to capture us. We don’t know who they are.”
Hm. Anonymous thugs taking advantage of the chaos and terrorizing families I would buy. The implication that this is the Kurds’ fault or that Kurds themselves are doing it is a little more problematic. The translator embellished her boss’ words with the the lovely detail that the thugs wore the green and yellow ribbons of the PUK and KDP, respectively, but Ali corrected her and said that wasn’t the case. So some Turkomen, at least, are willing to blame the Kurds.
The ITF demands these foreign militia and peshmergas removed from Kirkuk, Ali said, and it wants a shared administration of the city, including Turks, Kurds, Arabs and Assyrians. The idea, he said, is to have an administration based on proportional representation in Kirkuk.
And here we come to the crux of the matter. If the Turkomen can use the threat of Turkish intervention to pressure the Kurds into preventing the Kurdish refugees — most of them currently living in squalor in camps such as Binislawa outside Arbil — from returning to their old homes, Turkomen numbers won’t be diluted and their power in Kirkuk’s government — and their share of the oil revenue — will be that much greater.
To accomplish this, the Turkomen must claim oppression at the hands of the Kurds in the Kurdish enclave in the north.
“We have suffered under all people,” Ali said. “The Turkomen suffered under the KDP, politically, security and culturally.”
How so, I asked. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turkomen have a newspaper, a radio station, a television station (one of the biggest buildings in town with a huge satellite dish on the top) their own schools, the right to speak their language, three political parties and representation in the Kurdistan Regional Government’s parliament. The Turkomen in Iraqi Kurdistan have more cultural and political rights than the Kurds do in Turkey. What more do you want, I asked.
“These rights are the original rights of all people,” he said. “They are given from God. Other people don’t grant these rights. Arabs and Kurds have not power to grant these rights. We get these rights from our activities. A constitution would be helpful.”
I asked for specific examples of how their rights have been violated. The ITF has not been recognized, Ali said, and isn’t official. (But the three Turkomen parties that make up the ITF each have parliamentary representation.) Their reporters for the various media can’t leave the building and interview people on the street (Not true, I’ve watched Turkomen TV and they go out and interview people.) The Kurdish government officials won’t talk to their reporters (Well, sometimes they won’t talk to me; that’s the breaks.)
Their chief of security, Amir Azad, was arrested two months ago, Ali said, and they only now were able to send him a lawyer. “We are ready to give you a dossier about it,” he said.
“Great!” I said. “I’d like to see it.”
Then some discussion in Turkomen followed. “Oh, we have filed it with Kofi Anan at the United Nations. You can read it there.”
And then, after listing this litany of wrongs done to the Turkomen, Ali reversed himself.
“But we want to forget all and start a new page,” he said. “We don’t want to speak of past times.”
As a representative of a people who have allegedly suffered so much from the Kurds, Ali seemed awfully quick to put all these years behind them. His stated desire to move on represents either a saint-like ability to forgive, or a recognition that Turkomen claims are exaggerated.
PS: While I was typing this, it appears Tikrit has fallen without a fight. We’re heading there now.

Politics as an extension of warfare

ARBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan — Now that the war seems to be winding down, the long knives of ethnic politics are coming out. Glad to see no one is wasting any time!
In Kirkuk today, representatives from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Iraqi Turkomen Front and the Americans are meeting to thrash out how the city and the region will be governed once the PUK completes the pullout of its peshmergas from the city. Units from the American 173rd Airborne will be taking over to provide order and discourage the kind of looting taking place in Mosul today.
The looting in Mosul seemed much worse than what happened yesterday in Kirkuk. I bumped into Philip Robertson, of Salon.com, who asked me if the Americans were moving into Mosul. I said I didn’t know.
“Well, they better get there fast before they start shooting each other,” he said.
The issue of security is a tricky one, as Turkey is using the issue of the safety of the Turkomen minority in each city to justify a military intervention in northern Iraq. So far, the Turks’ response has been to send some “military observers” — basically a bunch of officers, near as I can tell — to Kirkuk, but they have thousands of heavily armed troops perched north of the border and just inside Iraq ready to swoop south. To the Kurds, this is just more of the Turks being the Turks.
“This is not the first time they have done this,” said Anawar Omer, 32, a laborer I spoke with in Arbil’s Shekhullah district, one of the major market areas. “They are the enemies of the Kurds and they want us to be nothing. Kirkuk is Kurdistan. It belongs to Kurds and it will always be that way.”
“We will kill the Turks if they come inside,” added Mahdi Kasab, a 30-year-old butcher standing nearby. “Each of us will kill six Turks if they come here.”
But the bellicosity of the Kurdish masses aside, the politics are as dangerous as any of the hundreds of minefields dotting the region.
“Kirkuk is delicate,” said Sadi Ahmed Pire, with the PUK international relations office and chief PUK representative in Arbil. “We have to be careful not to make any mistakes.”
Which brings us back to this meeting, which I’m sure is a big headache for the Americans trying to bring this region to heel. The agenda is to bring order to Kirkuk — setting up traffic police, a temporary mayor, curfews — without compromising anyone’s “interests.”
But “everyone’s” interests seem too contradictory to be reconciled. The Kurds claim Kirkuk as theirs, both for historical reasons — the validity of which I’m not even going to try to untangle — and economic reasons. The Kirkuk oil fields are some of the richest in Iraq, and if the Kurds were able to exploit them, their 12-year-old experiment in self-government in the north would start to look a whole lot more viable as an independent state.
The Turks, however, see this as a direct threat to their security, both because the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) used northern Iraq as a base during its 15-year war with Turkey that left more than 30,000 civilians dead, and because Turkey fears an uppity Iraqi Kurdistan would encourage its own 12 million or so Kurds to rebel.
“We are concerned about the Turkish position,” said Pire. “They have no right to have a doubt about the future of the area. I cannot explain why they have suspicions about a free life for the Iraqi people.”
And the Turkomen? What’s their angle? The Iraqi Turkomen Front and its president, Sanan Ahmet Aga, say they just want equal rights for their people, security and a seat at the political table. And the best way to get that, they feel, is to appeal to their ethnic brothers the Turks to cudgel the Kurds. This way, they can grab more political power than their numbers would normally allow. (Population numbers are pretty fuzzy, considering the last official Iraqi census was in 1957 and the Ba’athist regime routinely used fuzzy math for its own political agenda — hm — but I’ve heard estimates of the Turkomen population that range between 2 percent and 12 percent of Iraq’s population — 500,000 to 3 million people.)
Likewise, the Turks can use the image of the oppressed Turkomen, cowering behind their doors in the face of mortal threat from barbaric peshmergas and in need of Turkish protection, as a reason for them to maintain a military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurds, of course, are having none of that. “Turkey is a regional power and they have interests and they are misusing the issue [of the Turkomen] to express their interests,” said Pire. “The Turks speak of the Turkomen. But what happened to the Turkomen in Kirkuk? They weren’t targeted.”
As near as I could observe, Pire’s right on this one. The looting I witnessed yesterday in Kirkuk was pretty equal-opportunity. Homes weren’t being looted; government buildings and shopping centers were. A couple of times I saw a kids carrying tables or other office furniture while sporting the crescent-moon-and-stars-on-blue flag of the Iraqi Turkomen Front. They didn’t look too worried about their safety.
“Turkey,” he said, “is poisoning the atmosphere with their behavior.”
But to hear the Turkomen talk, perils lurk everywhere for them.
“We are in danger from the peshmergas,” said Salim Otrakchi, a political advisor to Iraqi Turkomen Front president Aga. “Al Jazeera and Arabia TV show them taking all the money from the bank in Mosul.”
The ITF wants the Turks to come in, for reasons detailed above, but worries that a small contingent of Turkish officers won’t be enough.
“We are for any administration that keeps people safe,” said Otrakchi. “But if the Americans can’t do it, let another power do it. The Americans are not prepared for this kind of work.”
He said the Turkomen were especially worried about Kirkuk because the PUK had promised it would not go into the city with its forces and it did anyway.
At this point, it’s probably a good idea just to tell you that I don’t believe what anyone is telling me at face value. The Kurds, deep in their hearts, really do want an independent Kurdistan and this talk of federalism is the practical side of Kurdish nationalism. If they thought they could get away with it, they would bolt Iraq and never look back, I think. The Turkomen don’t really feel that threatened, but they see the Kurds with their new buddies, the Americans, and worry they’ll be left out of any settlement and development plans in the north. So, they’re trying to play the Turks off the Americans to keep the Kurds in check. And the Turks … Well, actually, I believe them when they say they’re worried about their security. They’re a truly paranoid bunch.
I asked Otrakchi if the reason for Turkomen fears in Kirkuk and Mosul was the Kurds or the general disorder. Were Turkomen being targeted by anyone? Why were they deserving of special protection?
“Our people fear the power groups,” he said. “And the peshmergas have the power. No other group has power. This power is not being used to keep people secure.”
I said I saw many Kurds and Turkomen together in the park in Kirkuk pulling down the statue. And that I didn’t think peshmergas were actually in Mosul, that reports have said they stopped just outside the city while the Iraqi defenders melted away. It was the lack of peshmergas — or any other authority — that led to the looting in Mosul turning savage, if the pictures are to be believed. Again, aren’t the Kurds just as threatened by disorder and riots as Turkomen?
He asked me to make an appointment and talk to his president on Saturday morning. So I did. Maybe then I’ll get a straight answer.